feb 15/RUN

5.5 miles
bottom of franklin and back
21 degree / feels like 10

At first, I was planning to bike and run in the basement this morning, but I decided outside was better. And it was. The paths were slick in spots, but I was fine. Yesterday when I went running at around this time, late morning, I was hungry. I thought I’d be fine, but halfway through the run, I felt very tired. Again today, I was hungry, but I ate a cookie before I left and it made all the difference. (The cookie was a snickerdoodle from a batch I baked yesterday for Valentine’s Day.) I had energy for the whole run.

More cardinals today, no black-capped chickadees. The sun was out, then not, streaks of blue sky in the cracks of the clouds. I could see my shadow. She was not sharp, but soft, a little more than the idea of her there, a little less than her solid presence. The gorge was still white, and so was the river, except for some cracks in the ice, especially near the bridges — lake and franklin. On the way down to the flats, I cross under the I-94 bridge. Someone painted graffitied letters in lime green a few months ago and now, in the dreary dregs of winter, right above the dark gray water, they look sad and tired.

I don’t remembering noticing any critters, although I do recall hearing some rustling in the brush across the road as I entered the flats. I looked, but couldn’t see anyone or anything. Smelled a strong wave of pot. Encountered several runners and walkers. Near the end of my run, I passed a runner stopped by the side of the trail, waiting while her dog pooped in the snow.

Anything else? I think I devoted a lot of energy to watching the trail, and making sure I was avoiding ice, especially the big, concrete-like chunks that blend into the white background. At least, for me — do they for people with normal vision? One of the bigger chunks could do some serious damage to my foot.

Almost forgot: As I was finishing up, running on the sidewalks, trying to avoid the sheets of ice stretching across parts of the path, I thought about how I can usually see the ice. It’s because my peripheral vision is fine, and that’s where I spot the ice. And, to see ice — that is, “warning! ice ahead, watch out!” — doesn’t require a highly focused, precise image. Ice is often a blob or a discoloration on the path. I don’t need cone cells to see that. And, the way I, and probably a lot of other people, detect ice is by noticing how the light reflects off of it differently than the bare sidewalk. The sun on ice shimmers and sparkles more. Gray-ish light on ice is duller, flatter.

I think I finished my mannequins poem, I’m titling it, “Praise Improbable Things,” after lucille clifton’s poem, Praises, and its refrain, “Praise impossible things.” I’m barely halfway done with the month, so I have time to explore other meanings of WYSIWYG. I’m thinking of sticking with the mannequins, but exploring alt-text for them.

Here are some sources for alt-text that I want to use/refer back to:

feb 13/BIKERUN

bike: 25 minutes
run: 1.3 miles
basement
4 degrees / feels like -5

Finished one episode, started another of Dickinson while I biked. Some celebrity appearances: Sojourner Truth and Walt Whitman (played by Billie Eichner!), plus the introduction of one of Dickinson’s key mentors: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, when he reads the letter Emily sends to him about her poetry. After I finished biking, I listened to a playlist while I did a short run to reach my weekly goal of 20 miles. Excellent.

Last night, Scott, RJP, and I went to Gustavus for FWA’s home concert. Amazing. I never would have guessed how much it would mean to me to have FWA attend Gustavus — to see him thriving, and to reconnect with the place where my life began.

I continue to work on my mannequin poem. It’s getting closer, now just down to picking a few new words to make it better. This part is a lot of fun, much less stressful than the part with the blank page. I listened to a recording of myself reading my latest draft as I cooled down on the treadmill. Thought about changing some words to fit better with my new name for the mannequins, not Queens but Crones. When they were queens, I described them as surveying the kingdom, as Crones, should they survey the forest? Also, queens are adorned in hats, what is the best word for how Crones are dressed?

Thinking about Crones and old women and wondering what poems have been written about them. Here’s one I especially liked:

Old Woman in a Housecoat/ GEORGIANA COHEN

An old woman in
a floor-length housecoat
had become sunset
to me, west-facing.
Turquoise, sage, or rose,
she leans out of her
second floor window,
chin slumped in her palm,
and gazes at the
fenced property line
between us, the cars
beached in the driveway,
the creeping slide of
light across shingles.
When the window shuts,
dusk becomes blush and
bruises, projected
on vinyl siding.
Housecoats breathe across
the sky like frail clouds.

feb 12/RUN

3.5 miles
river road, north/south
1 degree / feels like -9
90% snow and ice covered

Brrr. Not much wind this morning, but it was cold. Used hand warmers, still my fingers were freezing for a few minutes. My circulation to my fingers and toes is not the greatest. Why not? The paths were icy, but with Yaktrax, I didn’t slip at all. Maybe it was too cold to be slick? Heard a bird chirping. Saw my shadow, faint and fleeting. Noticed the alarm under the trestle again. Not too many walkers or runners, no fat tires. Early on, I saw another runner, running below on the unplowed walking path. The river was covered in white. The road was crowded with cars whizzing by. Smelled some pot, but didn’t see who was smoking it, or where. Listened to the crunching snow for the first half, then a playlist for the second.

Last night, we watched snowboarding on the Olympics. It was very exciting to see Nick Baumgartner from Iron River, MI (just miles from the family farm) win gold in the relay. The most exciting thing was hearing the announcers say Iron River and UP several times. How often do you hear that on national television?

I continue to work on my mannequin poem. It’s fascinating to witness how this poem is transforming from an initial spark of wanting to write about how I relate to and delight in the mannequins, to an imagining of a space where they are valued and able to be strange and out-of-touch or out-of-step or on the outside.

feb 11/BIKERUN

bike: 25 minutes
run: 1.3 miles
21 degrees
wind + ice + snow

Watched most of the next episode of Dickinson. Emily is trying to help everyone, yet is failing to help anyone. She’s torn between Sue and her mother and sister, Austin and her father. She wants to lock herself in her room and write, believing that her poems are the only/best way to help others — her family and the nation, both divided, and the dying soldiers. A key question comes up a few times: what can poetry do? (and, is poetry ever more than just words?) I haven’t quite finished the episode, but this answer seems to be the most compelling, offered by the local seamstress, an African American woman named Betty:

Emily: So what if I can’t fix all the messy relationships in my family? The best thing I can do for the world, is to lock myself in my room and write my poetry.

Betty: But what good are your poems going to be if you do that? If you can’t handle the mess of the world, why should anyone need to hear what you have to say? Writing that shuts real life out is as good as dead.

Right before I started running, I listened to a recording of myself reading my mannequin poem. I have too many details, but I like the direction it’s going. Lots of editing needed. Here’s the beginning:

At the far edge of the fair
behind Merchandise Mart
in a red brick building
squeezed into an enormous glass case
are the mannequins.
Surrounded by
a glorious mess
of mismatched
textures textiles techniques
and adorned in handmade
hats and sweaters and coats
these legless armless women
preside over
a celebration
of an art form
both timeless and timed out.

Listening to the recording before I ran didn’t help me solve any of my poetry problems. Instead, I focused on my playlist as I ran.

It’s windy and white, with ice and snow covering the sidewalks. A blah day. February in its dreariest. Speaking of which, a poetry person posted this awesome news segment about February:

The idea about the trees revealing the truth, telling it like it is, seems like another version of, “What you see is what you get.” It’s funny because I have the opposite reaction to bare branches; I love the view they offer, and the gnarled truths they reveal. This could be another “WYSIWYG” poem.

feb 10/RUN

4.4 miles
minnehaha falls and back
18 degrees / feels like 8
less than 5% snow-covered!

Over the past couple of years, I’ve listened to several running podcasts. On one of them, the host ends the show by asking the guest to give listeners one reason to go out for a run today. More than half of the time, the answer they give is: because you’ll feel better and never regret it. For me, this is true. I’m better after every run and I’m glad I made it outside (or to the basement). Today included. It was colder than I expected, and I felt more sluggish than I’d like, but running for 40 minutes above the gorge and around the falls was an excellent way to occupy the late morning.

10 Things I Noticed

  1. the drumming of a woodpecker on a tree just above the oak savanna
  2. the river, white and flat and quiet
  3. 2 or 3 park vehicles in turkey hollow — are they trimming some trees, or what?
  4. the falls, frozen and still
  5. clearest view of the river: between folwell and 38th, beside a split rail fence
  6. best view of the falls: on the opposite end, near Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” etched on top of a low stone wall. I stopped and stood on some packed down snow — a clear, straight shot of the falls, the creek, and the bluffs around it
  7. the paths were almost completely clear except for a few spots where ice spread across one side (the result of snow that melted in the warm temps on Monday refroze)
  8. kids yelling and laughing at the playground at Minnehaha Academy
  9. a car pulling into one of the parking lots at the falls, then looping around quickly and leaving
  10. About 10 people at the falls, walking above, admiring the view

I’m still working on thinking about “what you see is what you get” and the state fair mannequins, but I’m struggling. Is it possible for me to write about them in a meaningful way? Not sure. This morning, I was thinking more about form. I thought about how I imagine my poem as one of praise for the mannequins, and the improbability that they continue to exist. Then I thought about hymns and how Emily Dickinson wrote in common meter/hymn form. Quatrains: 8/6/8/6, mostly iambic tetrameter/iambic trimeter ABAB rhyme scheme (with lots of slant rhymes) (Common Questions on Emily Dickinson). This sounds exciting and promising, but do I have words to fit this form? Unsure. I also thought about one structure Mary Oliver uses in her poems of praise: First, a detailed description of the delightful thing; then a display of wonder/astonishment, possibly the posing of a question; and, finally, a revelation. I want to try these different approaches with some sort of praise poems, but I’m not sure they work for the mannequins.

One approach to the poem could be to provide more detail and development of the “as-is” mannequins’ location in the creative activities building at the Minnesota State Fair: encased in glass, jammed with sweaters and ponchos, dresses, hats, mittens, aprons. Close to the quilts, the rugs, the weavings. Across from the jars of jellies and jams and pickled beans, pickled peppers, pickled cucumbers. Cookies, breads, cakes, honey. And, for a few years, melted crayon art. The domestic arts. The enemy of convenience, the ready-made, the instant, the quick. Homemade, not store-bought, requiring slow, patient effort, “traditional” techniques. The point of this effort is not to sell (or buy) more of anything, but to pass on these practices, different forms of knowledge (and to win a ribbon). Things in this building are not typically recognized as artistic or possessing Beauty (as a form), but as functional, useful, necessary for survival. Women’s work. How much of this to put in this poem? And, how do I connect that with another important aspect of the mannequins: my kinship with them as strange not quite human aliens who almost look real — almost — but lack that extra something, like the spark in the eye, the direct eye contact. Not sure how (or if) I’ll do this yet.

Here are 2 praise poem that offer some good inspiration as I continue to push through how to write my poem:

Praise the Rain/ JOY HARJO

Praise the rain; the seagull dive
The curl of plant, the raven talk—
Praise the hurt, the house slack
The stand of trees, the dignity—
Praise the dark, the moon cradle
The sky fall, the bear sleep—
Praise the mist, the warrior name
The earth eclipse, the fired leap—
Praise the backwards, upward sky
The baby cry, the spirit food—
Praise canoe, the fish rush
The hole for frog, the upside-down—
Praise the day, the cloud cup
The mind flat, forget it all—

Praise crazy. Praise sad.
Praise the path on which we’re led.
Praise the roads on earth and water.
Praise the eater and the eaten.
Praise beginnings; praise the end.
Praise the song and praise the singer.

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.
Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

I especially like the repetition and the detail of this poem.

This next one, offers a much pithier approach:

All Praises / Lucille Clifton

Praise impossible things
Praise to hot ice
Praise flying fish
Whole numbers
Praise impossible things. 
Praise all creation
Praise the presence among us
of the unfenced is.

Wow. Talk about effective condensing! I love the repetition in this one as well. And, that unfenced is? the best!

feb 9/BIKERUN

bike: 22 minutes
run: 1.45 miles

32 degrees, feels like 22, with 22 mph wind gusts. Puddled paths that are part slushy water, part ice. With these conditions, and since I ran outside yesterday, I decided to stay inside. Watched another episode of Dickinson. Sue is in labor, Emily’s mom (also named Emily) is her self-appointed midwife. Austin is drunk and hosting a maple sugaring party. And Emily is meeting up with Austin’s college friend who is about to leave for the war and who Emily believe will die (and become the “nobody” ghost that haunted her in season 2). He tells her that she is the only person who is willing to tell the truth about the horrors of the war, to “call it like it is,” to look straight into the darkness. Could this be another definition of “what you see is what you get”? A straight shooter, truth-teller who calls it like it is? While I ran, I listened to a playlist and tried to think some more about out-of-date mannequins and the “as is.” And, maybe I did, but now, about 30 minutes after I finished my run, all I can remember is connecting my love for the unloved, dismissed mannequins with the aging body and a fear of death.


feb 8/RUN

5.75 miles
franklin loop
24! degrees
5% snow-covered

Warmer today. Today’s high is 42. Sunny, not too much wind. Greeted Dave the Daily Walker and he called out, “a great day to be outside!” Yes. Not too crowded on the trail. Not too slushy either. Felt relaxed and motivated to run for a little less than an hour. For most of the run (the first 4.25 miles, until I reached the lake street bridge), I didn’t have headphones in, but for the last mile and a half, I put in my jan/feb playlist.

10 Things I Noticed

  1. the floodplain forest was white and open and empty
  2. the river was also white, with a few small cracks beginning to appear
  3. for the first mile, there was a strong smell of gasoline. Was it the quality of the air, moisture holding in the fumes?
  4. no one was sledding down the hill between edmund and the river road
  5. running under the railroad trestle, I heard a chirp or a beep. I wondered if it was some strange bird then realized it was a warning beep. Was there a train coming? I looked and listened but couldn’t sense any sign of one
  6. the huge boulder on the east side of the river was half covered with snow
  7. thought I noticed someone running below, on the walking path, through the tunnel of trees — a flash of a gold shirt — but it was just some dead leaves on a tree
  8. running west on the lake street bridge, the trees were a blur, whizzing past through the slats in the bridge railing
  9. ran above the part of the Winchell Trail that steeply descends to the gorge, noticed how it was buried under snow, and thought about hiking it in the fall, which feels so long ago, and encountering a family as we climbed up and they climbed down: a father, a toddler in pajamas, and a mother with a baby strapped to her front
  10. a few other speedy runners, 1 or 2 bikes, 2 or 3 dozen dogs, lots of walkers

This morning, I’m continuing to think about “as is” as a meaning for “what you see is what you get.” I suddenly remembered the island of misfit toys.

The misfit, mistake toys — a pistol that shoots jelly instead of water, a bird that swims instead of flies, a cowboy that rides an ostrich instead of a horse — all want to be accepted and loved by some “girl or a boy.” They lament their banishment to the island. At the end, they are “saved” by Rudolph and Santa and become presents. I didn’t watch the entire show; are they “fixed” or delivered “as is” to the kids? Will the kids (or their parents) be happy with broken/misfit/flawed toys? I mentioned this to Scott and he said, “I would LOVE a cowboy riding on an ostrich!” Much of my love for the State Fair Mannequins is because they continue to exist outside of the acceptable in an old, out-dated creative arts building. I don’t want them to fit in, or to have what “fits” be expanded to include them. I like that there is a space that seems to exist outside of progress and the newest, slickest model. But, there’s a tension for me, too: I appreciate (and identify with) these mannequins as strange, queer misfit resistors, but I also feel haunted by the pressure (and sometimes the desire) to fit in, where fit in = connect, be recognized as acceptable and human, not have to always work against the “normal.” I want to think about how I can express that unresolved/unresolvable tension.

Before I went out running, I watched the misfit toys clip and wrote some of the previous paragraph. As I ran, I thought about them and the mannequins and some words came to me. I held onto them until I could record them into a voice memo while I walked up the lake street bridge steps: “not improved, accommodated, fixed, cured. Just left alone.” I’d add now: left alone to be, away from the new, the novel, the latest model.

I found this poem when I searched, “mannequin” in the poetryfoundation.org database:

To the Mannequins/ HOWARD NEMEROV

Adorable images, 
Plaster of Paris 
Lilies of the field, 
You are not alive, therefore 
Pathos will be out of place. 

But I have learned 
A strange fact about your fate, 
And it is this: 

After you go out of fashion 
Beneath your many fashions, 
Or when your elbows and knees 
Have been bruised powdery white, 
So that you are no good to anybody— 

They will take away your gowns, 
Your sables and bathing suits, 
Leaving exposed before all men 
Your inaccessible bellies 
And pointless nubilities. 

Movers will come by night 
And load you all into trucks
And take you away to the Camps, 
Where soldiers, or the State Police, 
Will use you as targets 
For small-arms practice, 

Leading me to inquire, 
Since pathos is out of place, 
What it is that they are practicing.

feb 7/BIKERUN

bike: 20 minutes
run: 2.6 miles
7 degrees / feels like 0

Thought about running outside, but decided that it would be warmer tomorrow, and that I wanted to watch some more of Dickinson. Finished the first episode of season 3, which was all about death — Aunt Lavinia’s death, too many young men in the community dying due to the Civil War, Edward (Dad) having chest pains and then almost dying from a heart attack, the barely alive relationship of Austin and Sue. Some of the parallels between the never-ending, nation dividing war and the pandemic seemed a bit heavy-handed, but it was funny to hear Lavinia (sister) lamenting her lost 20s because of the war: “It’s soooo boring and taking sooo long. This is our 20s, we’re supposed to be having fun!”

Started my run by listening to Erik Larson’s No One Goes Alone, but then decided I wanted to listen to music and think more about my latest version of “what you see is what you get”: as is…In praise of the “as is,” the outdated, bargain basement dwelling forgotten ones. I’m thinking about the State Fair mannequins and how I’ve wanted to write about them for years now. Maybe I finally will? I hope so.

A few minutes into the run, I had some ideas, so I stopped my music, pulled out my phone, and recorded them while running. A bit awkward, but I didn’t drop the phone or fall off the treadmill. Listening back to the recording, it’s hard to hear my voice over my striking feet, so I won’t post the recording. I talked about the “as is” as the old, out-dated, bargain basement, and progressive lenses versus bifocals and how the type of cone dystrophy I have is progressive cone dystrophy because my vision has not stabilized and is continuing to grow worse — it’s progressively deteriorating, as opposed to stationary cone dystrophy where your vision stays at the same level; it’s already lost what it’s going to lose. The progress I’m experiencing is progress as getting worse not better, which is a type of progress that rarely gets mentioned in all the appeals to it. This reminds me of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing and a line she has about capitalism wanting uncontrolled/unlimited growth and how that’s what cancer is. I found it on goodreads:

But beyond self-care and the ability to (really) listen, the practice of doing nothing has something broader to offer us: an antidote to the rhetoric of growth. In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative. Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and are as productive in the same way.

How to Do Nothing/ Jenny Odell

I also found a similar, and much earlier quotation by the park ranger/ troublemaker/ writer/ environmental activist Edward Abbey:

growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

Edward Abbey

About a mile later, my thoughts went in a different direction with the as is. Here is some of the notes I recorded into my phone mid-run:

  • “as is” in terms of metaphor — I think I was thinking about the “as” or “as in this or that…” — and how what you see is what you get is the opposite of metaphor, the what that you see is what it is and nothing else, not almost or approximate.
  • what you see = your perspective, how you perceive/interpret/understand the world is how it is (or, more precisely how it seems/appears) to you. I was thinking particularly about my struggles to see/recognize other people’s faces and how I imagine others see me as rude or distant or unfriendly because of it. But, do they, or is that how I see myself? I feel like I’m not quite explaining this as I’d like to, but I’ll leave it for now

Of course, when I think about “as is,” I also think about IKEA and their as-is department:

The As-Is section is where you can view the selection of floor samples, discontinued pieces, and customer returns at a reduced price. IKEA has a certain amount of merchandise throughout the year that we retire, which ensures that we keep our selection of products up-to-date. That merchandise can end up in As-Is along with seasonal products that are left over after summer or after the winter holidays.

source

priced to sell, reduced, retired, discontinued, out-of-date, used, floor sample, damaged, banged up, unwanted or not wanted enough, last chance, remainders, hidden in plain sight (you know it’s there, but you ignore it), minor flaws (descriptions from the IKEA interview).

As Is/ Nicholas Friedman

Just north of town, a quaint Sargasso Sea*
for bric-a-brac: the barn, itself antique,
spills over with a grab-bag panoply
of outworn stock revalued as “unique.”
Typewriters tall as headstones fill the loft
where they’ve been ricked away like sacks of grain;
a coffer yawns the must of oak—gone soft—
when one man, squinting, lifts the lid to feign
intrigue. Nearby, his wife surveys the smalls:
art deco bangles bright as harpsichords,
a glut of iron trivets, Christmas balls,
Depression glass and warping Ouija boards.
One man’s junk is another’s all the same.
They don’t buy much, but that’s not why they came.

*I am familiar with Jean Rhys’s book, but wasn’t sure how Sargasso Sea worked here. Looked it up: “a vast area of the northern Atlantic Ocean which is home to sargassum, a kind of seaweed. The Sargasso Sea is legendary for being an oceanic black hole, where ships get ensnared by huge forests of floating seaweed, or drift helplessly when the wind ceases to blow.” Also found out: It’s the only sea not bounded by land.

feb 5/BIKERUN

bike: 10 minutes
bike stand
run: 3.25 miles
treadmill
10 degrees / feels like -6

Watched a few more minutes of Dickinson. Austin is drunk all the time, Sue is expecting his baby, Sue and Emily have declared their love for each other, Edward (Emily’s Dad) is having chest pains, and the mean girls are back. Oh, and the Civil War is raging and all the men in the town are dying. Should be an interesting season. Began listening to Erik Larson’s new book about William James and his expedition to a haunted house while I ran. Excellent! It’s called, No One Goes Alone. Listening to a book on the treadmill might help me to run longer. 30 minutes went by pretty quickly.

While I ran, I had some ideas of what and how to write about what you see is what you get: a lyric essay that juxtaposes many different ideas about it. I pulled out my phone and recording myself as I ran:

notes while running

Later, after I finished my run, while I was doing a cool down walk on the treadmill, I thought of another idea about what you see is what you get and Medusa and spoke it into my phone:

notes while walking

And, thinking about WYSIWYG as whizzywig, here’s a delightful poem I discovered about wigs:

Wigs Everywhere/ Justin Jannise

The brown squirrel, coiled & clinging
to the guardrail of my balcony,
is a wig.

I stepped out of the shower to dry my feet
on a damp wig.

You can fold a wig in a certain way
that it becomes a cup from which you can swig

water or juice or wigskey,
which is whiskey distilled
from fermented wigs.

I met Dolly Parton & she was all wig.

Kristen Wiig is a wig.
So was Ludwig van Beethoven.

In Britain, there used to be two political parties
—the Whigs & the Wigs.

There are wigs that are mops
& wigs that seduce cops.

In some countries, it is illegal for wigs
to marry other wigs.

Have you ever slept in a wig? It’s itchy.

The best wigs in life are free,
but the second-best cost
extraordinary amounts of money.

Somewhere in Detroit, you can trade
20 small wigs for one giant wig

& the award for Best Wig Ever goes to
Medusa. I love how she’d rather lose her head
than part with it

& how, even without a heart,
the head maintains its awful power.

feb 4/BIKERUN

bike: 25 minutes
bike stand
run: 2.2 miles
treadmill
7 degrees / feels like -8

Finished the final episode of season 2 of Dickinson and started the first episode of season 3 while I biked. This first episode of season 3 is titled, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” I memorized that poem last March. Didn’t think about it that much while I was finishing up my bike, but it, particularly the idea of hope, returned to me on my run.

I started my run feeling out of sorts, thinking about the possibility of a job I could apply for that sounds like a good/fun opportunity, but might require more vision than I have. As often is the case, I wondered: am I not pushing myself enough, using my vision loss as an excuse, or is this job just something too far beyond my abilities — too demanding, too much, too impractical for someone who can’t see fast enough? It took listening to several songs before I forgot these worries.

As I ran, I stared ahead at the blank tv screen, noticing how that empty black screen filled most of my central vision, while all around it, on the edge and outside of the frame were images — the light above, the wall to the wide, parts of the treadmill and the floor below. All the things I can see in my periphery. Even when my central vision is all gone, if/when that happens, I don’t think I will see the world like this, with a black space surrounded by slightly fuzzy, but identifiable shapes. Everything in the center will be more like a smudge, or a fogged up window.

Thinking about my periphery and what I can see with it, I’m reminded of watching ice skating on the olympics last night. I can tell my vision is worse; it is very difficult to follow, or to see the skater — well, I could see the skater, but mostly just flashes of their movement, not as a whole, complete object. To actually see the skater, I tried looking off to my right so I could see them through my periphery. Much better. Not completely clear, but they became a discrete, stable object on the ice.

So, I was thinking all morning about my theme for the month, what you see is what you get. I discovered that it was the catch phrase of Flip Wilson, used by his character, Geraldine. One source I found suggested it meant: this is me, accept me for who (and what and how) I am. I also was reminded that this phrase turns into a computer acronym: WYSIWIG. I mostly use the WYSIWIG editor on wordpress. I forgot it was called that because now they refer to it as the visual editor (as opposed to the code editor). I kept thinking about how this idea that what you see on the screen is what appears on the printed page is an illusion, concealing all the code that is required to make it appear as you want it. About a decade ago, I started learning some of that code (html, css). I don’t know much, just enough to understand that everything about how words or images look online involves a ton of behind-the-scenes brackets and semi-colons and classes and ids (and more). I find a lot of value in understanding, or at least being familiar with, how this works. And, I find a lot of danger in believing that all of what appears on a screen just is the way it is, almost by magic. I’m not suggesting that everyone should learn to code — wasn’t that a trendy slogan a few years ago? — but that they should be aware of how it works, and that it exists.

This ignoring of the process, and the naive belief that “things just happen,” reminds me of how many (most?) people believe vision works: you see what’s there with your eyes. They don’t think about the complex processes of vision, from cornea to retina to visual cortex, and how the brain, to make things easier and/or efficient, or because it has limited data, distorts or alters or guesses. When we see, we are not seeing the world as it is, but how our brains have figured it out.

Human perception is patently imperfect, so even a normal brain must fabricate a fair amount of data to provide a complete sense of our surroundings. We humans are lucky that we have these fancy brains to chew up the fibrous chunks of reality and regurgitate it into a nice, mushy paste which our conscious minds can digest. But whenever one of us notices something that doesn’t exist, or fails to notice something that does exist, our personal version of the world is nudged a little bit further from reality. It makes one wonder how much of reality we all have in common, and how much is all in our minds.

Chuck Bonnet and the Hallucinations/ Alan Bellows

As I was running, I thought again about E Dickinson and her feathered hope, and then the idea of hope and faith, and why we need it, how we envision it. Then, I pulled out my phone and recorded myself, mid-run:

What you see is what you get is an illusion, a type of empty hope, false faith, that some need to survive.

Is this fair? I’m not sure, but it’s something to think about some more, the idea that people invest an uncritical faith (I’m resisting the impulse to write “blind faith” here) and superficial hope in the belief that what we see is what is there, and that what we see is what is real. This belief provides comfort, makes it easier, enables them to not have to question or challenge, just accept.

Also on my run, as I listened to the excellent-for-running song, TNT by AC/DC, I thought about alt-text, and alt-text poetry, and how I might use it for a poem that pushes against the idea that what you see is what you get. Maybe vivid text descriptions of some things I see in my strange, slightly off ways, paired with straight, clear/basic description of those same things? I really like this idea; I’ll keep going with it to see if it could work.

To remember:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers/ Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all –

And sweetest — in the gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird —
That kept so many warm —

I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest sea —
Yet, never in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

“Faith” is a fine invention / Emily Dickinson

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!